Last Chance at Paradise

When Eric and I arrived in Fiji in early September, we were elated. Fiji is our final stop in the Pacific islands before jumping off to New Zealand in mid-October, and with its sparkling water, beautiful anchorages, white sand beaches and islands galore, it is extolled by sailors as one of the premier cruising grounds in the world. It is also a mecca for divers and snorkelers, while tourists have their pick of low-key, eco, and posh resorts. Though we couldn’t expect to visit all Fiji’s nooks and crannies, with no major boat repairs on the agenda and five weeks to explore, we could certainly hit the high spots. Why then, did some of them turn into such lows?

The weather. We entered Fiji at Suva, the capital, after a four-day sail from Tonga, the last two days in overcast and rain. Anchoring off the Royal Suva Yacht Club, we looked forward eagerly to drying out ourselves and Corroboree. However, somewhere in our reading we missed or willfully ignored the fact that the eastern half of Viti Levu, the main island of Fiji where Suva is located, is the “wet” half of the island. Here, even in the dry season, which this is, you can expect rain six days out of ten.      

In our case, it was six out of the six days we stayed there, one full day of which was spent traipsing around Suva on foot and by taxi to visit all the offices and officials required for a yacht to check in. Not to mention that Suva is a gritty industrial port, the water scummy and littered with wrecked ships, including one rusty hulk overturned right behind us in the yacht club anchorage. Across the street from the club is the federal prison. Fiji is the economic center of the Pacific islands, and downtown Suva is crowded with people and traffic. On a sunny day, it would seem bustling and colorful. During our stay, the almost unrelenting grayness overrode all.

The Royal Suva Yacht Club and prison across the street

As soon as the wind allowed, we made three quick daysails around the south coast to reach Vuda Point Marina on Viti Levu’s “sunny” side. Which it was, and we spent eleven pleasant and productive days there, more on that in a minute. Then at the end of September, we sailed out to the Mamanucas and Yasawas, an 80-mile crescent of picture-postcard islands off Fiji’s west coast. Though the sailing is challenging, with innumerable reefs, rocks and shoals, and the weather forecast for the next two weeks was less than ideal, there are plenty of anchorages to tuck into to wait out adverse conditions.

We spent three days at Musket Cove, a legendary sailors’ hangout, followed by three more at Yalobi Bay, where we visited the local village and made a donation to help purchase concrete to rebuild a dormitory at the school. The school serves four villages for students aged 5-14, and the small concrete buildings, like the village houses, are clustered along the shore at the base of rugged peaks. Throughout our stay at Yalobi, a strenuous wind whipped through the anchorage, and though it was sunny on our arrival, on waking the second morning the fog was so dense you would have thought we were in Ireland. A needle-sharp rain kept us and the occupants of the six other boats in the bay cooped aboard our respective yachts the entire day.

Yalobi Bay and school

The next daysail took us past Manta Ray Resort, where the big attraction is to swim in the water up close and personal with giant manta rays. Another cruising couple had raved about their experience there, and though the rays don’t always show up, we aimed to give it a try. But the anchorage has tidal issues and the wind wasn’t conducive so we passed it by. We anchored instead at nearby Navutalo Bay, spacious and well sheltered from every direction but the west, and after a walk ashore and a beer at one of the two small eco lodges, we ate dinner and turned in. We slept well—until 0400, when in the pitch dark a squall came out of the west.

I have to pause here to emphasize how unlikely this is. Winds in this part of the South Pacific are predominantly from the northeast to southeast and sometimes from due north or south. If they circle around to the west at all, they are almost invariably light. There was no reason, therefore, for us to doubt the forecast of northeast to southeast winds for our week offshore and every reason to congratulate ourselves on our judicious choice of Navutalo Bay.

But squalls don’t read weather forecasts. What they do instead is set your anchored boat to bucking like a demented bronco, the anchor chain snapping and letting out horrible banging noises with each buck, the rain flying by. Eric went up to the bow in his foul weather jacket to adjust the tension on the chain, but when he returned below there was a BANG! and the violent motion grew worse. Going up again, he discovered that the anchor snubber, a simple hook/shackle and rope device that reduces the load on the anchor chain, had snapped from the strain, and the hook and shackle were gone in the water. Back below, he got out a spare shackle and hook and attached them to the rope. Then we went up together and reattached the snubber to the anchor chain. All still in the rain and pitch dark, mind you, save for the deck light.

It’s at moments like this when I know in my heart of hearts that sane people just don’t do this. They visit Fiji on cruise ships, drink champagne with their gourmet dinner, and at 0400 are blissfully asleep in luxurious beds. We, meanwhile, were shuddering through a squall with a breakfast of cold cereal so we could bug out at first light. As soon as the darkness lifted, we did a walkaround on deck to ensure all was well. It wasn’t. Corroboree had pitched so hard that the  metal frame around the bow platform was bent and the wood splintered, compromising the anchor roller on that side.

But we have a second anchor, and on we went under an inky black-and-blue sky to one more stop, Nanuya Island, where you can anchor at the beautiful Blue Lagoon of 1980 movie fame. It’s pretty and protected, and you can buy a drink at the bar. But cruisers can’t go into the resort or sit on the bar’s sundeck or walk anywhere on the private island except along the narrow beach if the tide is low enough. It wasn’t. So after a single night, we headed back to Vuda Marina via Yalobi Bay. We arrived on 7 October and rejoiced in hot showers, cold beers, and dinner at the restaurant. The next two days on the “sunny” side of Fiji were usurped by gray skies and rain.

Sunset in the Blue Lagoon

I’d like to think that in relaying all this I am reporting, not complaining. And I’ll get to the good stuff about Fiji in a minute, because there is much about Fiji to enjoy. But if you’re considering a trip here, you need to know it’s not all sunshine and smooth sailing. During our stay, at least, it has been Jekyll and Hyde weather, lifting our spirits one day, dashing them the next. And much of the “sailing” in these fabled waters is actually motorsailing or just plain motoring due to contrary or variable winds. For us, motoring to any degree on a sailboat is a letdown. It’s mechanical and monotonous—no thrill, no exhilaration, no zest. It’s like sex without an orgasm. Oops! Did I say that?

But on to the good stuff about Fiji.

First, the people of Fiji are quite possibly the friendliest people we have met on our voyage so far. When we’re at anchor, they smile and call “Bula!” as they zip past us in their pangas. Walking on the beach, they stop to chat and ask where we’re from. They must see a thousand boats come through here in a season, yet each greeting feels warm and genuine. Here at Vuda Marina and at the attractions we visited, the staff has been welcoming and helpful in a way that goes beyond mere professional courtesy. In Suva, we also had the good fortune to meet Steve and Paula Cathers, American residents. Steve is the head of the International School, and Paula works there as a nurse. They keep their boat at the Royal Suva Yacht Club, and in addition to two pleasant evenings spent in their company, they generously loaned us their local modem for the duration of our stay, a tremendous help as the yacht club has no wi-fi for visiting yachts.

Interestingly, whereas in Tonga we were still in Polynesia, in Fiji we have entered Melanesia. The majority of the population of 900,000 is native Fijian, 38% is Indo-Fijian, and other groups include Europeans, Koreans and Chinese. In the cities, especially, it gives Fiji a distinctly Asian atmosphere. Curry restaurants are popular, the many small shops brimming with merchandise feel like you’re wandering in a bazaar, and the sights include women in vividly colored saris and advertising banners for a Korean film festival. Outside the cities, small Hindu temples and the occasional mosque pop up along the roadside. Regrettably, there is tension between the Fijians and Indians, and one Indian cab driver vehemently warned us to beware of “Fiji people” who would cheat us at the market or swipe our backpacks if we did not hold them close. Yet we were heartened to come upon several billboards around Fiji that promoted a different message. Like the United States, Fiji has an election coming up, so it’s perhaps fitting that Eric and I were able to mail in our absentee ballots from the post office here.

Billboard in Suva

During our first sojourn at Vuda Marina, we did a two-day car rental and partook of some adventures on land. First we visited the Garden of the Sleeping Giant. This 20-hectare botanical garden was started by actor Raymond Burr of “Perry Mason” fame in 1977. He had a home in Fiji and loved orchids, and his collection became the basis of the park. In addition to a walkway featuring varieties of delicate orchids, the garden has peaceful pathways, a lily pond, giant swings for adults, and a short climb up to a lookout spot with a spectacular view of the ocean and countryside. The Sleeping Giant, by the way, refers not to Burr but to the low mountain that overlooks the garden.

Garden of the Sleeping Giant

Another stop was at the Sri Siva Subramaniya Temple in the city of Nadi. Billed as “the largest and most exquisite Hindu temple in the Southern Hemisphere,” the ornate architecture and ceiling murals are so brightly colored the place almost glows like neon. Neither bare shoulders nor shorts are allowed for either men or women, but no worries as they will give you a length of cloth at the entrance booth to wrap yourself in. The ceiling murals can’t be photographed, but a pictorial brochure explains the significance of the deities and their legends. Afterward, we lunched at the temple’s small veggie café; rice, potato-stuffed rotis, dhal soup and a veggie stew. All good except for the coconut curry—way too spicy!

Proper attire for a Hindu temple

Then on to a really fun attraction, the Sabeto Hot Springs and Mud Pool. This natural hot spring was initially considered a nuisance because it ruined the crops. But American GIs discovered it during WWII and turned it into a place of recreation. We slathered ourselves in mud from buckets, walked around the local vendors’ stands while it dried, then rinsed off in a succession of four hot water pools through which the water filters slightly downhill. Each group of bathers is accompanied by a female attendant to watch over you and take photos, since you’re too muddy and wet to work your camera. Neither of us had ever tried a mud bath before, and to our surprise, it felt great. Our attendant, Rosie, was a high school student whose classes included math, English, geography and home economics.

How to take a mud bath; our attendant, Rosie

The next day we visited Sigatoka Sand Dunes National Park. This is Fiji’s first national park, and we had sailed by the dunes on our way along the south coast. It offers a variety of trails, including a birding trail, and the attendant explained the routes. On the birding trail, I spotted several lifers, such as the orange-breasted honeyeater. But the flocks of birds screeching in the tree canopy overhead kept eluding us, until we realized they weren’t birds at all. They were huge gray bats, thousands of them, flying between the trees and hanging upside down like cloaked gray ghosts. When we got back to the park office, the attendant told us these were both Fiji and Samoa bats and that on Fiji bats are eaten as food. I asked how you catch them. Answer: You knock them down from the tree by throwing a stick at them, then they can’t fly. Scrape off the fur and cook them—yum! The things you learn while cruising…

Sigatoka Bats

We ended our car tour at Momi Gun Battery. This WWII gun emplacement  was built and served by soldiers from Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, England and the USA. It was expected the Japanese would invade Fiji, but the effort faltered. So it was a bit of a boring stay for the soldiers here, boring in a good way. Now the Fiji National Trust runs the site and provides an excellent information center with lots of old photos and a printed guide to the battery, which consists of two big cannon and some bunkers. The latter are now used by the neighboring villagers as cyclone shelters.

Momi Gun Battery

Today, 10 October is Fiji Day, which marks the anniversary of both the day British took control of the islands in 1874 and the day Fiji achieved independence from the United Kingdom in 1970. Here at Vuda Marina, the restaurant is celebrating with a special dinner that includes kokoda, dalo, palusami and kuita vakalolo. Except for the palusami, a dish of taro leaves steamed in coconut cream which we sampled in Samoa, we are clueless as to the rest of the feast. But we’ll be there, raising a bottle of Fiji Bitter with our fellow cruisers and comparing weather forecasts for the passage to New Zealand. Meanwhile, these lovely people visiting the marina stopped by to chat.

No, Fiji hasn’t been paradise, but it has been an enriching and highly valued experience And miracle of miracles, the sun is fighting valiantly to emerge through the haze as I write.